The History of White People at War

I originally posted this on October 6, 2004.  Still trying to figure out the degree to which it’s still applicable to the present state of our field. My sense is that we’ve come a pretty good ways toward conceptualizing military history in a global rather than western context. But I’m not sure we’ve yet discovered a world military history “master narrative” that’s as coherent as the familiar “Plato to NATO” master narrative.

Two weeks ago I promised to report on the first meeting of History 873 [a graduate research seminar] in “tomorrow’s entry.”  I should have known better.  In the great scheme of life, a good many things take precedence over this blog–sleep not least among them.

The seminar has now met three times.  The first was, indeed, just a get-acquainted session.  I have ten students:  two early Americanists, two “civilian” military historians, and six active-duty officers (three West Point Army officers, one Navy ensign, an Air Force major, and a Republic of Korea army captain).  Initially I had some worries that some of the students wouldn’t twig to the seminar’s organizing concept–race and racism in the American experience.  But as nearly as I can judge my fears were quite definitely misplaced.  Thus far people are engaging with the material as well as I could wish.

[By the way, I turned out to be dramatically wrong about this.  Within a few weeks I faced a full-scale revolt.  But then it was a graduate cohort unusually zealous in its preference for “traditional” military history.  The subsequent cohort dubbed their immediate predecessors, with some bemusement, “the Old Guard.”]

I’m also about five lectures into the [intermediate undergraduate] History of War course.  The first meeting was an extended, ninety-minute lecture-discussion on “The Nature of War.”  I showed the roughly 140 undergraduates in the class four film clips:  a Luftwaffe air raid over 1940 London (from The Battle of Britain), the 1943 liquidation of the Lodz ghetto by SS troops (from Schindler’s List), the planting of time bombs in the European quarter of Algiers in 1957 (from The Battle of Algiers), and the march of Gandhi’s followers on the Dharasana salt works in May 1930 (from Gandhi).  Afterward I asked the students to tell me what the film clips had in common.  A number recognized that in each, one of the contending groups was armed, the other wasn’t.  I then asked them to tell which clips were depictions of war.  Everyone considered the air raid an act of war, albeit perhaps regrettable or immoral.  Opinion was more divided concerning the scene from Schindler’s List, with a number of students wanting to call it an act of atrocity, genocide, or ethnic cleansing in contradistinction to war.  They seemed implicitly to reserve the term war to describe something that was, if not noble, then at least morally defensible.  The same division occurred, to a lesser extent, with regard to the time bombs, while the scene from Gandhi struck most as an act of civil disobedience, not war.  There wasn’t any correct answer, of course.  The point I wanted to make was that “war,” and many terms associated with it, are inherently politicized and that it’s important to think in terms of who is making the claim that a particular act is or isn’t war; also to think about what any definition encompasses or excludes.

I wonder if the term “war” is not also racialized.  At first blush this will seem a reach, but I think I can make the case in two easy stages.  The first stage is simply to note that people of European heritage tend to think of war in a particular way, really a Clausewitzian way:  the continuation of a political struggle–usually an interstate political struggle–by violent means, and also involving the employment of violence by both sides.  The second stage is equally straightforward:  to note that people of European heritage are white.


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